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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Spirit of Eld


[Mr Campbell, in his very able preface to his interesting collection of popular Highland Tales, says, p. 20:—"Dr Macleod, the best of living Gaelic scholars, printed one old tale somewhat altered with a moral added in his 'Leabhar nan Cnoc,' in 1834; but even his efforts to preserve and use this lore were unsuccessful;" and at p. 28 the same accomplished writer says:—"The old spirit of popular romance is surely not an evil spirit to be exorcised, but rather a good genius to be controlled and directed. Surely stories in which a mothers blessing, well earned, leads to success; in which the poor rise to be princes, and the weak and courageous overcome giants, in which wisdom excels brute force—surely even such frivolities as these are better pastime than a solitary whisky bottle, or sleep in grim silence."

The following tale is that referred to in the above words. It is not an actual transcript of any individual tale, but it embodies "the spirit of romance," and presents an example of the general tone and teaching of the old Highland tale, most faithfully and vividly. In Gaelic it possesses all the freshness and gracefulness which the late Dr Macleod's intimate knowledge of the Highland character, or rather his own thoroughly Celtic heart and imagination, along with complete mastery of the language, enabled him to give. Very much of its life-like character is necessarily lost in the translation into a foreign tongue; but imperfect as it is, it may prove interesting to the thinking English reader, as a specimen of the style of teaching which served to nourish and strengthen among the Highlanders those qualities which, even their enemies being judges, they possessed in a very eminent degree—reverence for parents, hospitality, fidelity, and fearlessness.]

IN the olden time, there lived at the back of Beinn nan Sian, a goat-herd, named Gorla of the Flocks, who had three sons and one daughter. The herding of the kids was intrusted to her, the Darling of the Golden Hair. On one of the days when she was on the breast of the hill herding the kids, a fleecy wreath of mist, white as the snow one night old, twined round the shoulder of the hill, encircled the solitary darling, and she was seen no more.

At the end of a year and a day, Ardan, the eldest son of the herdsman spoke, saying:-

"A year past to-day, my sister, the Darling of the Golden Hair, departed, and it is a vow and a word to me that I will not rest, or stay, by night or by day, until I trace her out, or share her lot."

"If thou hast so vowed, my son," says the father, "I will not hinder thee; but it would have been becoming, ere the word had gone fortis from thy mouth, to have asked thy father's consent. Arise, wife; prepare a cake for thy eldest son. He is going on a long journey."

His mother arose, and baked two cakes, a large and a small one.

"Now, my son," says she, "whether wilt thou have the large cake with thy mother's displeasure for going away without leave, or the small one with her blessing?"

"Mine be the large cake," said he, "and keep the small one with thy blessing for those who prefer it."

He departed, and in the winking of an eye he was out of sight of his father's house. He plashed through every poo1, strode over every knoll. He travelled swiftly without sparing of limb, or thew, or sinew. He would catch the swift March wind which was before; but the swift March wind which was after him could not catch him. At length hunger seized him. He sat on a gray stone to eat the large cake, and the black raven of the wilderness sat on a snout of rock above him.

"A bit, a bit for me, Son of Gorla of the Flocks," says the raven.

"Nor bit, nor sup shalt thou have from me, thou ugly, black, grim-eyed beast. It is little enough for myself," says the Son of Gorla.

When this was over the edge of his chest, he again stretched his limbs. The swift March wind before him he would catch, but the swift March wind after him could not catch him. The moss shook as he drew near it. The dew fell off the branchy brown heath. The moor-cock flew to his most distant retreat. The evening was begining to darken. The black gloomy clouds of night were coming, and the soft silken clouds of day were departing. The little bright-coloured birds were seeking rest, at the foot of each bush, or in the top of each branch, amid the most sheltered nooks which they could find ; but not so was the Son of Gorla.

At length he saw afar off a little house of light; but though it was a long way off, he was not long, in reaching it. When he entered, lie saw a powerful-looking, stout, old gray-headed man stretched on a long bench on one side of the fire, and on the other a handsome maiden combing her waving tresses of golden hair.

"Come forward, youngster," says the old man. "Thou art welcome: often has my bright lamp attracted the traveller of the mountains. Come forward. Warmth, and shelter, and whatever comfort is in the dwelling on the hill are thine. Sit down, and, if it be thy pleasure, let thy news be heard."

"I am a fellow in search of employment," says the herdsman's eldest son. "The bright lamp of thy dwelling drew me to seek warmth and shelter for the night"

"If thou remain with me for a twelvemonth to herd my three dun hornless cows thou 'it receive thy reward, and shalt have no reason to complain."

"I would not so advise him," says the maiden.

"Advice unsought was never esteemed," says the Son of Gorla. "I accept thine offer, sir: in the dawn of the morning I am thy servant."

Before the belling of the deer in the forest the Maiden of the Golden Hair and the Silver Comb milked the three dun hornless cows. "There they are to thee," says the old man; "take charge of them, follow them, do not turn or hinder them. They will seek their own pasture; allow them to travel as they choose ; keep thou behind them, and whatever comes in thy way do not part with them. Let thine eye be on them, on them alone: and whatever else thou seest or hearest, give not an eye to it. This is thy duty; be faithful, be diligent, and trust my word; thy diligence shall not be without reward." He went in charge of the cattle, but he was not long away when he saw a golden cock and a silver hen running on the ground before him. He chased them: but though every now and then they were almost in his grasp, it defied him to lay hold of them. He returned from the vain pursuit, reached the place where the three dun cows were feeding, and began again to herd them; but he was not long after them when he saw a wand of gold, and a wand of silver, twisting and turning on the plain before him, and he immediately set off after therm. "It cannot be but that these are easier to catch than were the birds which deceived me," he said; but though he chased them still, he could not catch them. He betook himself again to the herding, and saw a grove of trees on which brew every kind of fruit that he had ever seen, and twelve kinds which he had never seen. He began to fill himself with the fruits. The dun cows set their faces homewards, and he followed them.

The Maid of the Golden Hair milked them; but instead of milk there came only a thin watery ooze. The old man understood how the case stood.

"False and faithless fellow," said he, " thou hast broken thy promise." He raised his magic club, struck the young man, and made a stone pillar of him, which stood three days and three years in the dwelling of the hill as a memorial of breaking the word and covenant of engagement.

When another day and another year had passed, red Ruais, Gorla's second son, said, "There are two days and two years since my lovely sister departed, and a day and a year since my big brother went off. 'Tis a vow and a word to me to go in search of them, and to share their lot." Like as it happened to the elder brother it happened in every respect to the second, and a stone pillar he is in the end of the dwelling on the hill, as a memorial of falsehood and failure in covenant.

A year and a day after this, the youngest son, brown-haired, pleasant Covan, spoke :—

"There are now three days and three years since we lost my beautiful sister. My beloved brothers have gone in search of her. Now, father, if it please thee, permit me to go after them, and to share their lot, and -let not my mother prevent me. I pray for your consent. Do not refuse me."

"My consent and my blessing thou shalt have, Covan; and thy mother will not hinder thee."

"Shall I," said the mother, "prepare the large cake without my blessing, or the small cake, with the wish of my heart, and the yearning of my soul?"

"Thy blessing, mother, give thou unto me, and much or little as may be given along with it, I am content. The possession of the whole world would be a poor inheritance with thy curse upon it. A mother's blessing 'tis I who will not despise."

Brown-haired Covan, the Son of Gorla, departed, and as his father and mother were disappearing in the mist, his heart was full. He travelled with speed; he reached the wood of roes. He sat under a tree to eat of the cake which his gentle mother had baked for him.

"A bit, a bit for me," says the black raven of the wilderness. "Covan, give me a bit, for I am faint."

"Thou 'it get a bit, poor bird," says Covan. "It is likely thou art more needful than I. It will suffice for us both. There is a mother's blessing along with it."

He arose and went on his way. He took shelter with the old man, and went to herd the three dun cows. He saw the golden cock and the silver hen, but he turned away his eyes; he followed the cattle. He saw the wand of gold and the wand of silver; but he remembered his promise, and did not go after them. He reached the grove, and saw the fruit that was so fair to the eye; but he did not taste of it. The three dun cows passed the wood. They reached a wide moor where the heather was burning. They went towards it. The flames were spreading, threatening to consume them all; but the cows entered into the midst of them. He did not attempt to prevent them, for such was his promise. He followed them through the fire, and not one of the hairs of his head was singed. He saw after this a large river which was swollen with the flood of the mountains. Across it went the dun cows, after them fearlessly went Covan. A short while after this, on a green plain was seen a beautiful house of worship, sheltered from the wind, brightened by the sun, from which was heard the melody of sweet songs and of holy hymns. The cattle lay down on the ground, and brown-haired Covan went in to hear the tidings of good. He was not long listening to the message of gladness, when there rushed in a light youth with raised look and panting breath to tell him that the dun cows were in the corn-field, and to order him to drive them out.

"Depart from me," says Covan. "It were easier for you, my good fellow, to drive them out yourself, than to run thus with panting breath to tell me. I will listen to the pleasant words."

A very short time after this the same youth came back, excitement and wildness in his eye, his chest panting.

"Out, out, Son of Gorla of the Flocks, our dogs are chasing thy cows. If thou be not out immediately thou shalt not get another sight of them."

"Away, good fellow," said brown-haired Covan. "It were easier for thee to stop thy dogs than to come thus panting to tell the tale to me."

When the worship was over, brown-haired Covan went out, and found the three dun cows reposing in the very place where he had left them. They rose, went on their journey homewards, and Covan followed them. He had not gone far when he carne to a plain so bare that he could see the smallest pin on the very ground, and he noticed a mare with a young frisking foal pasturing there, both, as fat as the seal of the great ocean. "This is wonderful," says brown-haired Covan. Very shortly after this he saw another plain, with rich abundant grass, where were a mare and a foal so very lean that a shoemaker's awl would not stand in their backs. After this was seen a fresh-water lake, to the upper end of which was travelling a numerous band of youths, bright and buoyant, fair and happy. They were going with joyful songs to the land of the Sun, to dwell under the shade of trees whose leaves were most fragrant He heard the murmur of the brooks that flowed in the land of the Sun—the songs of the birds—the melody of strings which he knew not, and of musical instruments of which he had never heard. He perceived other bands of miserable persons, going to the lower end of the lake—to the land of Darkness. Horrible was the scream that they raised, woful was the sad wringing of their hands. Mist and dark clouds were over the land to which they were travelling, and Covan heard the muttering of thunder. "This is truly wonderful," he said; but he followed the three dun cows.

The night now threatened to be stormy, and he knew not of house or of shelter where to pass it. But there met him the Dog of Maol-vnor, and no sooner met, than this liberal giver of food invited him, not churlishly or grudgingly, but hospitably and heartily, to lay aside three-thirds of his weariness, and to pass the whole night with him. He was well and carefully tended by the Dog of Maol Mor in a warm cave, where no water from above or below came near them,—if this would suffice him with sweet flesh of lamb, and of kid, without stint, or scant, and in the morning abundance for the day's journey.

"Now farewell to thee, Covan," says his host "Success to thee; wherever thou goest may happiness be always thy companion. I offered hospitality, and thou didst not spurn it. Thou didst pleasantly and cheerfully accept what I offered; thou didst pass the night in my cave; thou didst trust in me; thou hast made fast my friendship, and thou shalt not be deceived. Now attend to my words: if ever difficulty or danger overtake thee, whenever speed of foot and resolute action may deliver thee, think of the Dog of 1lfaol-mor, wish for him, and I will be by thy side."

He met with the like friendship and liberality on the following night from the renowned giver of food, the active, far-travelling black raven of Corrinan-creag, on whom sleep never settled, nor sun ever rose, until he had provided what was enough for himself and for him who came and went. Short-hopping, wing-clapping, he led the way for Covan through the goats' track, to a hollow under a dry snout of rock, where he asked him to lay aside three-thirds of his weariness, and to pass the whole night with him. He was well cared for that night, if mutton and venison would suffice; and on going away in the morning, he said to him, "Covan, son of Gorla of the Flocks, take with thee what thou needest. The stranger's portion I never missed, and remember my words. If ever you happen to be in peril or hardship, where a strong wring, and courage which fails riot, will avail thee, remember me. Warm is thy breast, kind is thine eye. Thou didst confide in me; thou bast ere this fed the black raven of the wilderness. I am thy friend—trust in me."

On the third night he met with companionship and hospitality as good from the Doran-dour, the sharp-eyed, the skilful, active seeker, who would not be without food for man or boy while it was to be found either on sea or land. Though in his den were heard the mewing of wild cats and the snarling of badgers, he led Covan—without awe, or fear, or starting—firmly, steadily, straightly to the mouth of a cairn, where he asked him to lay aside three-thirds of his weariness, and to pass the whole night with him. Well was he entertained that night by Doran-done of the stream—the constant traveller—if fish of every kind better than another would suffice, and a bed—dry, comfortable, and soft—of the cast-wave of the highest spring-tide, and of the dilse of the farthest out shore.

"Rest for the night, Covan," said he. "Thou art most heartily welcome. Sleep soundly, the Doran-done is a wakeful guard."

When day came Doran escorted Covan for a part of the way.

"Farewell, Covan," said he. "Thou hast made me thy friend; and if ever difficulty or danger overtake thee, in which he who can swim the stream and dive under the wave will avail thee, think of me,—I will be at thy side."

Covan went forward and found the three dun cows in the hollow where he had left them, and by the close of that same evening he and they reached the dwelling on the hill safe and sound. Welcome and kindness awaited him in the house when he entered, and he was entertained without stint or grudge. The aged man asked how it had fared with him since his departure, and lie began to declare it. He praised him for not having meddled with anything which he had seen until he reached the house of the sweet hymns, because those were only a vain show to deceive him.

"I will, after this, open to thee the mystery of the matter, and explain the meaning of the sights which caused thy great wonder," says the old man. "Meantime, ask thy reward, and thou shalt have it."

"That will not be heavy on thee, I hope," says Covan, "and it will be abundant for me. Restore to me in life and health—as they were when they left my father's house—my beloved sister and brothers, and piece of gold or coin of silver Covan wishes not."

"High is thy demand, young man," said the aged. "There are difficulties between thee' and thy request above what thou canst surmount."

"Name them," says Covan, "and let me encounter them as I best may."

"Hearken, then. In that lofty mountain there is a fleet roe of slenderest limb. Her like there is not. White-footed, side-spotted she is, and her antlers like the antlers of the deer. On the beautiful lake near the land of the Sun, there is a duck surpassing every duck—the green duck of the golden neck. In the dark, pool of Corgi-bus there is a salmon white-bellied, red-gilled, and his side like the silver of purest hue. So, bring home hither the spotted white-footed roe of the mountain, the beautiful duck of the golden neck, and the salmon which can be distinguished from every salmon,—then will I tell thee of the sister and brothers of thy love."

Off went brown-haired Covan. The Maid of the Golden Hair and the Silver Comb followed him.

"Take courage, Covan," says she; "thou bast the blessing of thy mother and the blessing of the poor. Thou hast stood to thy promise; thou hast rendered honour to the house of sweet hymns. Go, and remember my parting words. Never despair."

He sought the mountain; the roe was seen—her like was not on the mountain; but when he was on one summit the roe was on another, and it was as well for him to try to catch the restless clouds of the sky. He was on the point of despair when he remembered the words of the Maid of the Golden Hair: "Oh, that I now had the fleet-footed Dog of Maol-mor," said he. He no sooner spoke the word than the good dog was by his side, and after taking a turn or two around the hill, he laid the spotted roe of the mountain at his feet.

Covan now betook himself to the lake, and saw the green duck of the golden neck flying above him. "Oh, that now I had the black raven of the wilderness, swiftest of wing, and sharpest of eye," says lie. No sooner had he spoken thus, than lie saw the black raven of the wilderness approaching the lake, and quickly he left the green duck of the golden neck by his side.

Then he reached the dark deep pool, and saw the silvery, beautiful salmon, swimming from bank to bank. "Oh, that I now had the Doran-dorm that swims the streams and dives under the wave," says Covan. In the winking of an eye, who was sitting on the banks of the river, but Doran-Donn? He looked in Covan's face with kindness—he quickly went out of sight, and from the dark deep pool he took the white-bellied salmon of brightest hue and laid it at his feet. Covan now turned homewards, and left the roe, the duck, and the salmon on the threshold of the dwelling on the hill.

"Success and gladness be with thee," said the aged man. "He never put his shoulder to it who did not throw the difficulty over. Come in, Covan; and when the Maid of the Golden Hair has milked the three dun cows, I will open the mystery of the matter to thee, and we will draw wisdom from the history, and the journey of Covan."

"Thou didst not leave the house of thy father and of thy mother without their consent : the blessing of father and mother was with thee, Covan. Thou didst not refuse a morsel to the hungry in his need : the blessing of the poor was with thee, Covan. Thou didst make an engagement, thou didst promise, and didst fulfil; and the reward of the true is with thee. Thou didst see the golden cock and the silver hen—the glamour which gold and silver cast on the sight: thou didst remember thy promise, and didst walk in the path of duty. Happiness attended thee, Covan. The tempter tried thee again with the wand of gold, and the wand of silver which appeared easier to grasp. Thou didst remember thy promise and didst follow the cattle. When he failed to lead thee astray by gold and silver, he tried to deceive thee with the fair fruit of the grove. He set before thee every fruit ever seen by thee, and twelve which had not been seen, but thou didst turn away from them. He then tried thy courage by means of the fire and the flood; but thou didst pass through them on the path of duty, and didst find that they were as nothing. Thou didst hear the voice of the holy hymns, and the sound of the sweet songs. Thou didst go in, doing well. But even thither the tempter followed thee. Good was thy answer to him. 'I will listen to the truth.' Thou didst see the bare pasture with the high-bounding steed and the frisking foal, glad in the midst of it Thus often, Covan, is it in the world. There is scarcity in the house of hospitality; but peace, gladness, and increase are along with it. Thou didst see the abundant pasture, and every four-footed creature on it near dying from leanness. Thus, in the world, is the house of the penurious churl. There is abundance in it; but he has not the heart to use it; there is want in the midst of plenty. There is a worm gnawing every root, and every flower is withered. Thou didst see the beautiful lake, and didst hear the glad notes of the happy bands who were travelling to the land of the Sun. These are they who attended to my counsel, and were wise in their day. Thou didst hear the painful wailing of those who were going to the land of Darkness. These were the people without understanding or wisdom, without truth or faithfulness, who made light of every warning. and now they lament miserably. Thou didst not despise the kindness or hospitality of the poor. Thou receivedst frankly what was offered thee in friend ship. Thou didst not shame the needy. Thus thou didst bind their attachment to thee. Thou didst stand to thy promise. Thou didst follow the cattle. Thou hast earned thy reward. I trusted to thy courage. Difficulties did not deter thee. Putting thy shoulder to them, thou didst overcome them. Thou didst never despair. Thou didst also find that the Dog of Mao-mor, the Black Raven of the Wilderness, and the Brown Doran of the Stream, were not without value.

"And now, Covan, Son of Gorla of the Flocks, hearken to me: `Restore to me,' thou sayest, 'my beautiful sister and beloved brothers, whom thou hast under the power of witchcraft!' What is witchcraft, Covan? The false contrivance of the deceiver—the vain excuse of the coward—the bugbear of fools—the terror of the faint-hearted—what never was, is, nor will be. Against the dutiful and the upright there is neither witchcraft nor wile. Thy sister, the Darling of the Golden Hair, thou shalt get home with thee; but thy brothers, though they are alive, laziness and unfaithfulness have made wanderers without home or friend. Go thou to thy father's house, Covan, and treasure in thy heart what thou hast seen and heard."

"And who art thou that addressest me?" said Covan.

"I am the Spirit of Eld--the Voice of Age," says the old man. "Fare thee well, Covan. The blessing of the aged go ever with thee."


 


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